HOUSTON (Reuters) - Monster Hurricane Irma has shut down oil terminals across the northern Caribbean, worsening a fuel supply crunch in Latin America which is struggling to meet demand since Hurricane Harvey disrupted shipments from the U.S. Gulf Coast last month.
Latin America had been scrambling for almost two weeks to find oil cargoes because of Harvey, which caused massive flooding in Texas and Louisiana, shutting down ports, refineries and production platforms.
Irma, which is being followed by two hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, was affecting Caribbean refineries, terminals and storage facilities.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma is the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the five most forceful storms to hit the Atlantic basin in 82 years.
The Caribbean has the capacity to store more than 100 million barrels, which is crucial for those nations because of limited ability to refine crude, and also as supply for South American nations including Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia.
Several oil trading firms had moved a portion of their U.S. fuel inventories to the Caribbean ahead of Harvey so they could keep selling cargoes to Latin America, traders from two companies told Reuters.
Those barrels are now locked in terminals in St. Eustatius, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as Irma, a Category 5 storm with winds of 185 mph (295 kph), was expected to hammer the region for several more days as it moves west-northwest.
“Irma is arriving at a bad moment. Not all oil storage facilities in the Caribbean have closed, but vessel traffic is difficult in the middle of the storm. It will get worse before getting any better,” said a trader from an oil firm that rents tanks in St. Croix.
Buckeye Partners LP (BPL.N), the largest owner of oil storage facilities in the Caribbean with 41.1 million barrels of capacity, shut its Puerto Rico terminal on Wednesday. It also plans to close BORCO, its largest terminal in the Bahamas that can store up to 26.2 million barrels, by the end of the day on Thursday, a source familiar with terminal operations said.
Also in the Bahamas, Statoil’s (STL.OL) South Riding Point terminal was open on Thursday, the company said. But traders added that plans to halt marine operations would likely start later on Thursday.
NuStar Energy LP (NS.N), which on Tuesday closed its 13-million-barrel Statia terminal on the small island of St. Eustatius, said several tanks and other equipment were damaged in the hurricane, so no restart date has been set.
Firms using tanks in closed terminals in St. Eustatius, St. Croix, Bahamas and Puerto Rico include traders Vitol, Glencore (GLEN.L), Novum Energy and Freepoint Commodities, and oil firms PDVSA from Venezuela, China’s Sinopec (600028.SS), Russia’s Rosneft (ROSN.MM) and Lukoil (LKOH.MM), U.S. Chevron Corp (CVX.N) and Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSa.L), according to the sources and Reuters vessel data.
As traders worry about Irma’s impact on inventories, others see longer-term potential consequences from this or other storms, as both Jose, now in the Atlantic Ocean, and Katia, off Mexico’s coast, continued moving on Thursday after strengthening to hurricanes.
“If a hurricane with Irma’s intensity strikes a terminal tank farm, the force of the storm at the eye wall will have destructive impact on the storage tanks, which are typically not designed to withstand those forces,” said Ernie Barsamian, chief executive officer of the Tank Tiger, a terminal storage clearinghouse.
Mexican state-run oil company Pemex said on Thursday that its facilities have not been hit so far, but it keeps monitoring Katia’s path to decide if further action was needed.
Fuel importers such as Mexico and Brazil have secured supplies in recent days from the U.S. East Coast, Europe and the Caribbean, according to traders, regulators and oil firms.
But those options are running short amid growing regional demand and limited offers from Texas refiners as ports have been slow to reopen for large vessels.
The only option that traders see for desperate buyers in the coming days is to divert fuel cargoes from countries such as Brazil, which bought diesel in excess, or Venezuela, which cannot pay for all the fuel floating near its ports because of the country’s fiscal problems.
At least three fuel cargoes have been diverted from Venezuela since last week, according to Reuters data. All of them have changed their destinations to Panama, likely to pass the Canal before discharging in South America.
Companies from Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru and Costa Rica are seeking spot cargoes of diesel, gasoline, aviation gasoline, asphalt and components on the open market, but few providers are willing to participate, traders said.
“I cannot use my inventories in the Caribbean at this moment to supply third parties,” one trader said.
Dominican Republic refining firm Refidomsa, which declared force majeure last week on deliveries, has been rationing fuel from its 34,000-barrel-per-day Haina refinery, giving it enough inventory for 20 days.
Most Caribbean refineries are dependent on U.S. light oil since large regional crude producers such as Mexico and Venezuela have cut exports to some neighbors.
Reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City, Linda Hutchinson in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Jessica Resnick Ault in New York, and Alexandra Alper in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker